At least 200 Phinney Ridge residents gathered at Woodland Park Zoo's public hearing last Wednesday, June 8, to protest the zoo's plans to build a multilayer, above-ground parking garage on the west side of the park, instead of a below-ground facility on the south side of the park.
The garage is part of the zoo's Long Range Physical Development Plan for the next 20 years. In addition to the parking garage, the zoo plans to add an events center, an administrative office building, a carousel, new animal exhibits and other facilities.
Both the zoo and the community originally preferred the below-ground structure. According to the Woodland Park Zoo website, the south-side garage was estimated to cost between $30 million and $35 million. The mayor was not willing to pursue this option and compromised with a four-story, west-side parking garage, estimated at approximately $16 million.
Neighbors complained the zoo's management did not adequately inform them of the new plan before agreeing with the City Council to compromise.
The Seattle City Council voted in favor of the long-range plan with the compromised parking structure last October. The city gave management of the zoo to the Woodland Park Zoological Society almost three years ago.
Phinney Ridge Community Council (PRCC) president Irene Wall said the zoo should have consulted the community before agreeing to the garage compromise.
"We don't want a big intrusive garage - it's worth it to invest in an underground garage," she said. "They could have gotten community to back them up and help get the cooperation of the mayor. Instead, they presumed that they knew best."
Community member Craig Fryhle echoed Wall's sentiments.
"Last fall a quiet and quick 'switcheroo' took place when all of a sudden the south underground garage idea fell to the favoring of an above-ground garage. The public was not involved in or sufficiently informed of this most major change," he said in a recent letter to a Seattle City Council member.
Jim Bennett, director of communications and marketing for the zoo, said the community has been involved in planning for the last five years. He said an announcement was released on the zoo's website after the City Council decision.
He added that there have been newspaper articles, letters to the editor and numerous community meetings throughout those five years, and that the community will continue to be involved in the designing of the new park structures.
Garage project manager Dan Phillips said that the zoo management also preferred an underground structure, but the city had to consider costs.
"The favored alternative for the neighborhood and the zoo was in the south end [of the zoo] and underground as much as possible. It turned out the city needed to look at costs - below ground is very expensive," he said.
Phillips added that the City Council unanimously agreed on the long-range plan, including the parking garage. "The long-range plan was already adopted by the City Council. It's a closed issue," he said.
But it's not a closed issue for residents.
"What gets people fired up is that the zoo is saying it's a done deal, while people are just hearing about this issue," Phinney Ridge resident Ginny Watkins said. "Many of my neighbors don't know anything about what is going on, which is part of the anger. It's been off the radar - there is something not right about it."
According to PRCC member John Havard, the zoo's deputy director, Bruce Bohmke, tried to prevent him from handing out fliers at the April 20 meeting about a Resident Parking Zone (RPZ), saying that the fliers contained misinformation. Havard was then asked to leave the meeting.
Havard consulted a lawyer, who wrote a letter to zoo administration. The zoo allowed Havard and other community members to pass out fliers on zoo grounds at the following evening's meeting.
'Commercialization of zoo'
Some residents believe that the zoo's long-range plan is less about catering to the needs of zoo-goers and more about commercializing the zoo and making money.
"The zoo's plan is about ambitions toward commercialization of the zoo, not greater attention to animals and the core of the zoo's mission," Fryhle said.
Fellow resident Watkins also feels the zoo is being commercialized. "I think that if it wasn't for the event center, there would not be a garage. This is a 400-person event center - we're talking corporate meetings, weddings and retreats," she said.
Bennett said that the events center will be used for events that the zoo has been having for years, like company picnics, weddings and meetings. He said the public has exaggerated the size of the event's center.
"There is a misconception about the size of the center. It is a total of 9,000 square feet, which includes one floor and a basement. The absolute upper-limit capacity is 400 people, but the average event would be only about 120 people," he said.
Bennett added that the event's center has nothing to do with the garage.
With the addition of the new West Garage, a total of approximately 1,360 visitor parking spaces will be provided at the zoo. According to the Woodland Park Zoo website, the zoo has less than half the available parking of other zoos with comparable attendance, and demand exceeds capacity more than 100 days each year.
Residents also object to the proposed Resident Parking Zone in the surrounding zoo neighborhoods. The permit would cost $35 a year per car for residents and would encourage zoo-goers to use the parking garage. A 60-percent approval is required to pass an RPZ.
Phillips said that the zoo has no authority to impose an RPZ on neighbors. "The misconception is that the zoo or the city can somehow impose a Residential Parking Zone on the neighborhood. The zoo has no intention, and it is a neighborhood decision," he said.
Philips said that the zoo has heard complaints for years about the parking situation around the zoo, and the zoo is surprised at the public response.
Five years ago neighbors on the south side of the zoo voted for an RPZ, but were asked by the zoo to wait until a parking plan was developed.
Ginny Watkins said parking is rarely an issue for neighbors.
"If you talked to a lot of people at the meeting, many neighbors, we have no trouble with people parking in front of our homes on the busy zoo days - it happens so rarely," Watkins said.
Irene Wall says that community members will continue to protest aspects of the long-range plan. "We will ask the City Council to reconsider some elements of the long-range plan, including the events center and above-ground garage," she said.
Wall said she received a signed letter from all nine City Council members last month saying that the issue would not be revisited.
Phillips said the City Council decision is clear.
"Some of the organizers in the community understand that City Council has been very clear. They have still chosen to continue in their tracks, and that is their choice," he said.
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